Moving Toward Inclusiveness in Safe Injection Sites

Contributed by Loïc Welch

Canada decided, as a country, to respond to the growing drug epidemic by following the harm-reduction route and choosing not to criminalize some of its most vulnerable populations. A legal framework to tackle the growing issue of drug-related hazards arose out of collaboration between local, provincial, and federal actors who came together to create sites where drug possession is exempted from criminalization. Safe injection sites (SIS) provide medically supervised locations where the users can administer their own drugs safely and without fear of arrest and prosecution by law enforcement. The purpose of this endeavour was to address the rising epidemic of blood-borne diseases – which spread through the sharing of infected needles – and the increasing rates of drug overdoses resulting in death. The Insite facility, located in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and founded in 2003, was the Canadian trailblazer. It received an exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substance Act (CDSA), granted by the federal government. In 2008, the Minister of Health decided not to renew Insite’s legal exemption from the CDSA, leading into a contentious legal challenge on constitutional grounds. While the complete constitutional powers analysis is fascinating, it was ultimately the Charter infringement that paved the way for real change. Former Honourable Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin, writing for the majority, held that the claimants’ rights to life, liberty, and security of the person under section 7 of the Charter were violated by the Minister’s decision of not renewing the exemption from the CDSA. In order for Insite to fulfill their mandate, the people who use their services needed to not fear consequences of possessing drugs at the site: “To prohibit possession by drug users anywhere engages their liberty interests; to prohibit possession at Insite engages their rights to life and to security of the person” (para 92). The latter part of the quote refers to the fact that by criminalizing drug possession at Insite, it prevents the users from safely administering their drugs and potentially exposes them to life-threatening situations, thus engaging all three section 7 rights. Continue reading “Moving Toward Inclusiveness in Safe Injection Sites”